International Stress Awareness Week - Day 4:
Weigh it up

“We all have big changes in our lives that are more or less a second chance.”

Harrison Ford

When stressed in the moment: Stop and ask yourself how do you feel right now. Rate your experience on a scale of 1 to 10. Rather than saying “I’m really scared” or “I’m really angry”, but a number on it. If you are afraid and rate it 8/10, what would make this challenging situation a little less scary, such as 7/10? Then consider how does your experience right now compare with other occasions. Is it better than or worse than other times, and, if so, in what ways is it different this time?

What’s happening? The key points so far in managing your stress have been adopting a reflective stance in order to learn from your experience and not to lose the chance to change for the better. Accepting yourself – the way you react to pressure and how you cope – is important, as is finding helpful and constructive outlets for the frustration that builds up when our physical and emotional needs are neglected or unsatisfied.

When under pressure, you lose perspective. This is a function of your emotional-thinking brain, whose purpose it is to keep you alive by taking immediate action (fight, flight, freeze). There is a survival advantage in being able to react quickly. That ability is diminished if attention is dispersed too widely onto all manner of potentially challenging situations or perceived threats. Which one do we respond to first?

The emotional-thinking brain reduces information overload by making salient the key threats or opportunities. It makes them stand out from the crowd of ‘other’ information by enhancing their characteristics (‘blowing things out of proportion’) whilst diminishing the value or effect of other, potentially less-threatening information. It filters what information needs to be considered from that which is deemed irrelevant. We no longer have the full picture, but instead a distorted perception that is strongly influenced by the mood we are in at the time.

If you’re in a bad (angry), scared or sad mood, then you are more sensitive to information that match that mood, and the information you receive is coded as memory in your brain with the same emotional tags attached. Retrieving these memories, it follows, is most successful only when the same mood is elicited again (think about how you remember, for example, how great it was going to a festival – the bands, the fun, being with friends – but probably forget about the mud, blocked portaloos and the cost of the food!).

Another way in which the emotional-thinking brain helps you to stay alive is by presenting very few options for action – usually just the two of fight or flight. This does not offer you a broad-ranging repertoire. You can make very quick decisions when presented with just two options – and that’s exactly what we can find ourselves doing: jumping to conclusions. These often are not our best decisions.

How to make the most of this technique? Taking the time to consider in more detail just how ‘awful’ a situation is, and exactly how ‘quickly’ you think you’ll get the sack for making that ‘catastrophic’ mistake, and how many people (and who) must think you are completely stupid, is really worth it (‘how worth it?’ 10 out of 10, in my opinion!).

By attributing a value to your experience, you immediately open up the situation for further consideration. Put a stake in the ground, give it a name. More importantly, what happens in the brain when you start thinking with perspective is that bloodflow to the emotional-thinking, reactive, survival-focused areas (collectively known as the ‘limbic area’) reduces, and increases to the logical-thinking, language-processing and planning parts of your prefrontal cortex. The result is that you calm down and can start to see the bigger picture and how things are connected within it. From that calm mind comes awareness, creativity and solutions.

Even emotions come in degrees. Take anger, for example. “I’m angry” is so general that it requires explanation. How angry? Angry about what? Are there words that can describe this in greater detail? Angry, incandescent with rage, furious. Or is it annoyed, frustrated, niggled, irked, or even just disappointed? These words suggest some scale to the felt emotion of anger.

How do you access this perspective-taking state of mind? Start by putting a measure on things, before comparing and contrasting them with previous experiences. Be objective. Ask how things differ to previous experience. What specifically is different? What did you learn from the last time that you can employ this time? Sometimes just the realization that you’re still alive and in a job is enough to point out that the last challenging time was not as catastrophic or career-ending as it felt at the time.

We can also lose perspective as a result of a challenging situation not having a negative impact. Our sense of relief (a state of positive emotions) when danger has passed can cause us to neglect to consider what actually happened in the situation. It is true that there are plenty of factors that are not in our control, but when we erroneously attribute control, power and agency to situations, we can lull ourselves into a false sense of security (thinking we are more in control than we are), or succumb to learned helplessness (failing to realize exactly what power we do have).

Everything is relative. You have good days and bad days, and all of them are better or worse than each other. Assess situations – and your own reactions – with a more-or-less frame of mind.

For further reading into how adamant your emotional-thinking mind is, and how to manage the little voice in your head that sometimes gets really annoying, I strongly recommend the book Chatter by Professor Ethan Kross.

Coming up in Day 5: Use your strengths.

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